Frederick Douglass and the Complexion of Liberalism
Q: “What future course do you think the Press might take in promoting good among our people.”
A: “I think the course to be pursued by the colored Press is to say less about race and claims to race recognition, and more about the principles of justice, liberty, and patriotism.”
— 1891 Interview, Irvine Garland Penn & Frederick Douglass
On December 3rd, 1847, Frederick Douglass published the first issue of The North Star; the paper would become a megaphone for antebellum America’s most unique voice — a voice that offered a critique of liberal-democratic society which resonates in our own time. The man born Frederick Bailey, in Maryland, in 1818, of an enslaved mother (and an unidentified father, presumed to be white), exhibited a remarkable intellectual precocity, which beguiled a rudimentary education out of his mistress — Mrs. Sophia Auld — that was legally forbidden to southerners of his caste; and for good reason: his penetration of the veil of illiteracy led him to The Columbian Orator, and a literature of freedom that would illuminate the course of his entire life. Escaping to the North in 1838, the young Douglass quickly became associated with radical abolitionists of the Garrisonian persuasion, thereby solidifying his faith in the purity of the American Dream (codified by the Declaration of Independence) and his commitment to bringing the depressing reality of his day into line with the ideal espoused by that document. As he matured, Douglass evolved a distinctive social philosophy, which grew out of his perspective as an American cultural “insider” — with impeccable liberal/democratic/radical credentials — in the guise of an “outsider”.
In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass’s second, more analytical, autobiography, he notes, with delicious irony, that “Master Hugh’s [Auld] oracular exposition [to his wife] of the true philosophy of training a human chattel . . . was the first decided anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen.” Auld’s discovery that Sophia, a novice slave-holder, had felt it incumbent upon herself to instruct Douglass (“at least to read the Bible” ), occasioned his unwittingly revelatory remarks; to the effect that “if you teach that nigger how to read the Bible, there will be no keeping him . . . it would forever unfit him for the duties of the slave.” The child in question, blessed with a lively mind, “instinctively assented to the proposition; and from that moment [Douglass] understood the direct path from slavery to freedom.”
Auld’s interference came too late; Douglass had been given the inch of leverage he needed to change his destiny. The institution of slavery, in the city of Baltimore, was incomparably milder than it was on the plantations of the Deep South. At the age of thirteen, Douglass managed to hoard up fifty cents (earned blacking boots) and freely walked into Knight’s bookstore, on Thames street, where he purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator. This text left an indelible imprint upon the adolescent slave’s mind. Of particular importance to him was a dialogue between a master and his slave; according to Douglass, “the master was vanquished at every turn in the argument; and seeing himself to be thus vanquished, he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity.” In addition to this welcome piece of “fanaticism”, The Columbian Orator also offered :
…Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them the better I understood them.
Frederick Douglass’s ingestion of the sentiments contained within The Columbian Orator, at such a young age, enabled him to make a great imaginative leap into the mainstream of American liberal-democratic thought, long before he ever shed the physical bonds of slavery. His experience of the cruelty of masters and overseers corroborated the Protestant/whig distrust of power that informed the speeches he had read. Douglass made a psychological case study of his mistress, Sophia Auld, whose “natural sweetness” deteriorated into “fretful bitterness”, as a result of wielding the tyrannical power of a slaveholder, although, “a noble nature, like hers, could not, instantly, be wholly perverted.”
Peter F. Walker writes: “There is no doubt that Douglass meant to preside over his biographers’ work. No man more assiduously guided future biographers along paths that he wanted them to follow.” Most studies of Frederick Douglass do indeed tend to repeat the trajectory of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, My Bondage and My Freedom, and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; however, this essay will eschew the traditional structure, in favor of an analysis of the social philosophy that he began to develop, under the tutelage of William Lloyd Garrison, during the 1840s, and which blossomed into an enduringly valuable critique of American culture in Douglass’s speeches and articles of the 1850s.
Fired by an unquenchable desire for liberty, Douglass effected his own rescue from bondage, on September 3rd, 1838. The fugitive and his wife, Anna Murray (a free black woman), made their way north; settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where, like many passionate young New Englanders of the era, Frederick Douglass gravitated into abolitionist circles. On August 12, 1841, at a convention in Nantucket, Douglass (on what he describes as his first “holiday” ) was asked to speak, and he nervously accepted the challenge, delivering a stirring account of his trials under the yoke of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison rose to salute the fledgling orator: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” he cried, using the call-and-response formula which was common to Evangelical church meetings and anti-slavery gatherings. “A man! A man!” replied the audience.
Frederick Douglass soon embarked upon a new career as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Dominated by the extremist Garrisonian faction, the MASS was a hotbed of millenial/radical ideas, some of which were only cursorily connected to the great project of abolition. Garrison communicated his highly unorthodox views from a newsprint soapbox, The Liberator; by the late 1830s, he had progressed from an anti-slavery activist to a theorist of “Universal Emancipation”:
Henceforth, we shall use it [the term “emancipation”] in its widest latitude: the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the thralldom of self, from the government of brute force, from the bondage of sin — and bringing them under the dominion of God, the control of an inward spirit, the government of the law of love, and into the obedience and liberty of Christ . . . Next to the cause of slavery, the cause of PEACE will command our attention . . . As to the governments of this world, . . . we shall endeavor to prove, that, in their essential elements, and as at present administered, they are all Anti-Christ; that they can never, by human wisdom be brought into conformity to the will of God; that they cannot be maintained, except by naval and military power; that all their penal enactments being a dead letter without an army to carry them into effect, are virtually written in human blood; and that the followers of Jesus should instinctively shun their stations of honor, power, and emolument — at the same time “submitting to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake,” and offering no physical resistance to any of their mandates, however unjust or tyrannical. . .
Many Garrisonians were thoroughgoing Christian Anarchists, and Frederick Douglass adhered scrupulously to most of his mentor’s tenets — women’s rights, moral suasion as opposed to political abolitionism, disunionism — throughout the 1840s. By all accounts, he was a thrilling orator, although the speeches he made, in his twenties, were unremarkable for their ideological content. It was not commonplace for a black man to speak on the anti-slavery circuit, and those who did generally drew the task of eliciting the crowd’s sympathy with tales of Christlike suffering in bondage. He had been hired as a “prize exhibit.” “Give us the facts,” John A. Collins told Douglass, “we will take care of the philosophy.” The independent-minded Douglass would have none of this, and his digressions on the subject of Northern prejudice foreshadow the perspicacity of his great works of the 1850s. In a speech delivered at Plymouth, in December, 1841, he declared:
At New Bedford, where I live, there was a great revival of religion not long ago — many were converted and “received” as they dais, “into the kingdom of Heaven.” But it seems, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net; at least so it was according to the practice of these pious Christians; and when the net was drawn ashore, they had to set down and cull out the fish. Well, it happened now that some of the fish had rather black scales; so these were sorted out and packed by themselves. But among those who experienced religion at this time was a colored girl; she was baptized in the same water as the rest; so she thought she might sit at the Lord’s table and partake of the same sacramental elements with the others. The deacon handed round the cup, and when he came to the black girl, he could not pass her, for there was the minister looking right at him, and as he was a kind abolitionist, the deacon was rather afraid of giving him offense; so he handed the girl the cup, and she tasted. Now it happened that next to her sat a young lady who had been converted at the same time, baptized in the same water, and put her trust in the same blessed Savior; yet when the cup, containing the precious blood which had been shed for all, came to her, she rose in disdain, and walked out of the church. Such was the religion she had experienced!
At 23, three years removed from bondage, Douglass understood that slavery was a national problem, which persisted, unmolested, in the South, in part because northerners shared many of the racial attitudes of his former masters. In the same speech, he remarked:
. . . people in general will say they like the colored men as well as any other, but in their place! They assign us that place; they don’t let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision. . . . degrade us, and then ask why we are degraded . . . shut our mouths and then ask us why we don’t speak . . . close colleges and seminaries against us, and then ask why we don’t know more.
At this stage, Douglass’s understandable admiration for Garrison (and his comrades) blinded him to the fact that he had clearly been “assigned a place” in the anti-slavery crusade. He had yet to realize that — in the context of mid-nineteenth-century America — the darkness of his skin would color all of his relationships. Douglass’s hope, in 1841, was that the “kind abolitionist/minister” would become an internalized facet of every northerner’s conscience, rather than a watchful super-ego embodied within a single man. His thought was so firmly cast in the liberal-democratic mode of The Columbian Orator, that he couldn’t help envisioning the individualistic, race-less E pluribus unum society idealized by the text; but his assumption that this paradise was imminent, in antebellum New England, was premature, to say the least.
The first indication of Douglass’s growing desire to break out of the role he had been assigned, ironically, was the publication of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, in 1845. The autobiography carried a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, and an introductory letter by Wendell Phillips; the young author still required the endorsement of white abolitionists, but the insistent clause, “written by himself”, evidenced Douglass’s discovery of his own subjectivity. The narrative itself, particularly in its presentation of the fight with the “negro-breaker” Covey as a seminal event in the protagonist’s life, is blatantly at odds with Garrisonian pacifism, and serves notice of Douglass’s newfound willingness to disagree publicly with his mentor.
Shortly after the publication of his first autobiography, Douglass embarked upon an extended journey to Europe, in order to promote anti-slavery in the international arena. The trip, which lasted approximately a year-and-a-half, profoundly altered Douglass’s sense of his place in American society; it was an opportunity to view his native land from the perspective of an individual, unmoored from his cultural context. There is substantial agreement among Douglass’s biographers that, during his experiences abroad, he had “come to know himself. He had gained enormous self-confidence from being treated with public respect. . . . he [had become] ‘his own man’.” There is a great deal of symbolic significance in the fact that, during this period, a group of enthusiastic British abolitionists purchased Douglass’s freedom from Auld. It is hardly beside the point to note that many of his “uncompromising anti-slavery friends [in America] failed to see the wisdom of this arrangement, and were not pleased that [Douglass] consented to it.” The spectacle of a man buying back something that was his by birth struck many abolitionists as grotesque (although Garrison, interestingly, favored the transaction, in the name of expedience!).
The British abolitionists were profoundly impressed by Douglass, and a group of them offered him a substantial sum with which to begin an independent journalistic enterprise upon his return to America. The project, which would blossom, in December 1847, into the North Star, aroused a storm of controversy that is useful as a lens through which to glimpse the power dynamics at work within American abolitionism, and the Garrisonian faction in particular. Wendell Phillips, Maria Chapman, Edmund Quincy, and Garrison himself, all pleaded with the ex-slave to abandon the idea. According to Douglass, their opposition was premised upon the following objections:
First, the paper was not needed; secondly, it would interfere with my usefulness as a lecturer; thirdly, I was better fitted to speak than to write; fourthly, the paper could not succeed.
In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass remarks that he was distressed by the “offense which I was about to give my Boston friends, by what seemed to them a reckless disregard of their sage advice,” however, his resolve drew sustenance from the insight that, perhaps, he had previously been “under the influence of something like a slavish adoration of my Boston friends.” They certainly did take offense: he was perceived as ungrateful, and Douglass’s ironic repetition of the term “friends”, in this passage, indicates his bitter recognition of the fact that his relationships with these white comrades had lacked the reciprocity that is a prerequisite of true friendship. Edmund Quincy, the interim manager of The Liberator, during Garrison’s absence in mid-1847, called Douglass an “unconscionable nigger,” when a dispute arose between the two men over the monetary value of his contributions to The Liberator(which had only been requested as a means of distracting Douglass from his plan of becoming an editor in his own right.) Quickly, the 29-year old ex-slave found himself estranged from his former associates, and moved the base of his operations to Rochester, New York. Though he had come to disagree with Garrison on certain tactical points, and would diverge still further from orthodoxy during the 1850s, the rift, it seems, had more to do with Douglass’s refusal to keep his place.
Peter F. Walker argues that, throughout the 1840s, an underlying fear of betrayal can be detected in the relationship between Douglass and the Garrisonians;
in the case of the Garrisonians, it is Douglass’s betrayal of their confidence in him to play is assigned role. In Douglass’s case it is the Garrisonians’ refusal to make good the promise he believed they had given him at Nantucket, that he could now live without the attributes of blackness. Both defaulted, as they must have, because the premise from which they proceeded meant inevitable “betrayal”. The role the Garrisonians assigned Douglass was incompatible with the promise they had given him.
Scholars agree that Douglass’s experience of a more subtle form of racism; presaged by John A. Collins’ early suggestion that he keep “a little of the plantation speech . . . [so as not to] seem too learned,” was the catalyst for a fundamental shift in his thinking. However, the question of what he developed into is a much debated one. Most writers, in dealing with Douglass after his break with the Garrisonians, have found W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of African-American “double-consciousness” a useful one. According to Dubois,
the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…
In the just-quoted passage, there are, ironically, two irreconcilable types of “double-consciousness”: the first, which arises from a sense of “always looking at oneself through the eyes of others”, seems astonishingly appropriate when used as a matrix for understanding Douglass’s career from 1847 onward; however, it is the second formulation, which describes the African-American as “two souls . . . warring in one dark body,” which most recent scholars have appropriated, and it has had a pernicious effect upon their work.
Waldo Martin Jr, in The Mind of Frederick Douglass, occasionally falls into the trap set by Dubois’s second formulation, although the author strives assiduously to avoid it, throughout a very insightful book. He interprets Douglass’s integrationsism as a call for “total Negro assimilation into the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant-dominated political culture . . . complete assimilation into the political mainstream.” Martin errs in attributing to Douglass any sense that freed blacks had any choice in the matter. They were already in the political mainstream, as Douglass’s emergence from slavery, with the American Dream already on his mind, demonstrates; the barrier to “assimilation” was an artificial one, created by bigoted whites who resisted this truth. Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Carla L. Peterson succumb to a similar misconception, arguing that “Douglass . . . turned to the Enlightenment discourse of liberty and equality — the discourse of the dominant culture — to shape it into a powerful counter discourse.” This is simply not true: Douglass did not shape a “counter-discourse”, he simply entered the mainstream debate (and there was no question of his “turning to” Enlightenment discourse, as if he was experimenting with a new set of tools, it was the only discourse he, or any other American, was exposed to.) The idea that the American, liberal-democratic side of African-American “double-consciousness” is “white” is a fallacy that has marred almost every scholarly study of Frederick Douglass’s life and thought; liberalism has no complexion.
Daniel Walker Howe goes to the other extreme, in Making the American Self. Douglass is the only black person examined in this book, a concatenation of biographical sketches, hung on the theme of self-construction; and, after his escape from slavery, the author treats him as if he faced exactly the same problems as the rest of his subjects (the chapter is called “Self-Made Men: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass”). For Howe, there is no “double-consciousness”, all of his subjects are simply colorless, sexless “Americans” (in the ideal sense). The author does not acknowledge that Douglass ever suffered from the feeling of being “looked at through the eyes of others”; he is treated solely as a model for the “triumph of human will over brutishness.”
It is my contention that Frederick Douglass did indeed experience a sort of “double-consciousness”: he was an American, committed to the values of the Declaration of Independence, and yet he felt (indeed, he was) excluded from the Lockean social contract. The fact of his being black meant very little to him; unfortunately, it meant a great deal to most of his contemporaries, on both sides of the color line. This is an important issue to raise, in view of the morbid scholarly interest in Douglass’s apparent desire to escape his “blackness”. His contemporaries often made similar charges against him, especially during his reputed affair with the Englishwoman Julia Griffiths (1848-1855), and after his marriage to Helen Pitts, another white woman(1884). Many (most?) whites considered his behavior “a deliberate challenge to the Caucasian race,” while a black commentator wrote that “the colored ladies take it as a slight, if not an insult, to their race and beauty.”
As a result of his experiences, and the thoughtful reassessments of his native culture that they engendered, Douglass emerged, in the 1850s, as the most eloquent articulator of the problem of “double-consciousness” in American history. During this decade, he often expressed himself in the characteristic idiom of the “American Jeremiad,” with certain important modifications. The Jeremiad, as defined by Sacvan Bercovitch, is a “ritual designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal.” Its structure is quite simple: Americans have sinned, and the current afflictions are a chastisement, but America remains the promised land, the home of the Elect, and the hope of the world. Bercovitch’s work has examined how this form — which originally served as a vehicle for Puritan divines, at the top of the social hierarchy — became in the nineteenth-century, the preferred mode of self-proclaimed “isolattoes”, criticizing society from the margins.
Douglass’s masterpiece, in this genre, is his “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” a speech delivered at Rochester, on July 5th, 1852 (hereafter referred to by its more famous name, “The July Fifth Speech.”) This text, which demands close reading, contains within it all that is essential to Douglass’s critique of American liberal-democracy. He prefaces the speech with the conceit that “I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust my ability, than I do this day.” This is an unusual beginning for what will prove to be a Jeremiad (with a difference). The inference to be drawn is that Douglass does feel that he knows where America has gone astray, but he lacks confidence in the ability of his hearers to see past his skin color. He continues:
The papers and placards say that I am to deliver a Fourth of July Oration . . . the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable — and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude.
The reference to the platform and plantation appears to be a reminder to his audience not to confuse the two; not to demean the experience by envisioning Douglass toiling ignorantly under the southern sun, while he is striving to reach them through the language of liberty and potential which he and they share. He explains that the “purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.” The introduction of the second-person pronoun is Douglass’s most important adaptation of the form. The thesis of the Jeremiad, historically, had been that we have sinned. The speaker denounced himself, along with his society. How could he have anything interesting to say, about the regeneration of the polity, unless he too had succumbed to the “declension” he described? More to the point: how could he motivate his audience, unless he shared their ideal vision of America, and the psychic pain of its “loss”? Douglass’s transformation of the Jeremiad from an address in the first-person, to one in the second-person, was an ironic tour-de-force. “The Fifth of July Speech” was an oration given by a man who had as clear a vision of the American Dream as anyone who had ever lived, and yet, he was not a part of the social contract, and was forced to address the body politic as “you”. The distinction between Douglass and a white contemporary, like Emerson or Thoreau, is the real difference between an “insider” envisioning himself as an “outsider”, and an “insider” branded an “outsider”. It is one thing to stand apart from the imagined community because of one’s opinions; it is quite another to be kept out because of one’s skin color.
When discussing the Founding Fathers, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass remarks that “the point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. . . . and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” However, he then places his finger upon another, less noble, national trait:
It is a fact that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans if I say I think the American side of any question can be safely left in American hands.
Douglass anticipates that some in the audience might think that abolitionists should “argue more, and denounce less . . . persuade more, and rebuke less” ; however, as he avers later in the speech, “at a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” With this in mind, he asks: “what point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light?” This is followed by a stinging catechism which delineates one of the cleverest portraits of American hypocrisy ever painted:
Would you argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. — There is not a man beneath the canopy of Heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
Yet, Douglas concludes the “Fifth of July Speech” on a characteristically American note of optimism: “notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. . . . While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles which it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.” Thus Douglass completes the great experiment of yoking the American Jeremiad to the concerns of a “double-consciousness”, bred by the contradictions within a culture based upon the idea of universality, which persists in making arbitrary distinctions.
Douglass held tenaciously to his “double-vision” of America throughout the remainder of his life; despite the heartbreaking events of Reconstruction, after the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. Later, he would advance a doctrine of “regeneration through miscegenation” as a final solution to the nation’s racial problem. Many of the questions Douglass addressed remain unsolved, a fact that increases the poignancy of his critique. His ironic pseudo-Jeremiad is an eternal warning to liberal-democrats not to discriminate against those whom their ideals have inspired. By the same token, his dogged devotion to the idea of universality; his refusal to equate the principles of the Declaration of Independence with the white men who signed the document (or with the slaveholder who wrote it) makes him a role model for the “marginalized.”
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